Playing the Comparison Game: The Dark Souls of Criticism

Similes and metaphors make short of long sentences and extremely abstract concepts. When Romeo tells Juliet that his “bounty is as boundless as the sea, / my love as deep; the more I give to thee, / the more I have, for both are infinite”, it’s easy to understand how deep in love he is without saying more.

But “these violent delights” of figurative language “have violent ends / and in their triumph die like fire and powder”. Instead of becoming shortcuts, the little tool has become another weapon to beat the dead horse.

The most egregious example is the comparisons to Dark Souls, an action RPG series by From Software. Its mechanics and atmosphere have impressed players so much that people have started looking and developing games similar to it. Salt and Sanctuary is a 2D Dark Souls-inspired work, so people comparing that to the series makes sense. Others — not really:

  • “Has Crash Bandicoot become Dark Souls?”-type videos has inspired a general outlash from video game fans. How can an old video game be compared to something new?
  • Re:ZERO Is NOT What You Think It Is (It’s the Anime Version of Dark Souls)” and other similar blog posts try to hammer down random pieces of media to fit the conventions set by Dark Souls. They don’t always work.
  • “List of films similar to Dark Souls” is a Reddit thread with good examples like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a film teemed with “Soulsian imagery”.

This lazy, universal adoption of the Dark Souls-like comparison by fans and video game critics has become quite a huge problem. A video critiquing video game journalists argues it is better to support normal YouTube critics who do native advertising than actual critics because of this. It’s a stupid as hell idea, but people have no faith in the journalism business.

It’s worse when it seeps into the art of the interview. “How much inspiration was taken from Attack on Titan?” asked SegmentNext to the developers of Extinction in this infamous screencap by @xmeetsdarksouls, “Dark Souls is a popular franchise and one of its key features was that it allowed other players to invade the world and take on monsters. Is there a similar system in Extinction? Or are we on our own?” Imagine your own original work being compared to two big established works. It’s disheartening and discourages creativity when all you need to make a good game is to follow market trends.

Some like Patrick Klepek in Waypoint suggest this trend may indicate that Dark Souls may have created a “new genre”. Using Nioh as a reference point, he argues that the game “doesn’t pretend Souls doesn’t exist.” It uses it as a base to move forward, much like how he notes the first first-person shooters are not “Doom clones” but works inspired by the gameplay style. Doom and Dark Souls are genre-defining.

That is an extremely positive outlook on the whole situation. We’re at the beginning of that new era, so we’re throwing words left and right to see what actually works. If that is the case, that’s cool.

Unfortunately, this usage of lazy comparisons is not new. Praising a work by comparing it to something else may be one of the most ancient things to put down a work brimming with creativity. Done well, it’s great. Done awfully, it is a way to wrap our heads to think about something in a more simplified perspective at the expense of the work and creator.

If we dip our toes into the world of books, you’ll see we still talk about Dark Souls but with fancier names instead. José Maria de Eça de Queiros, a Portuguese writer, has written masterpieces like Os Maias. His idol, Émile Zola, considers the writer “far better than [his] own dear master, [Gustave] Flaubert.” You can find articles who call Quieros “the Portuguese Zola”. James Guida in The New York Review of Books calls him “the [Marcel] Proust of Portugal”. None of these articles about the great writer are inherently bad; however, there comes a time when you start wondering why do creators need to be compared to other creators, especially those in America, France, and England.

We don’t have to go too far from our time to find this problem either. When The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt was reviewed by The New York Times‘s Michiko Kakutani who described it as a “glorious, Dickensian novel,” everyone started describing the novel as Dickensian. For example, the writer Stephen King writes on Goodreads, “Tartt proves that the Dickensian novel—expansive and bursting with incident—is alive and well.”

But it is only until later do we have people asking what does Dickensian even mean. Some have noted that it follows the structure of David Copperfield, others talk about the descriptions, maybe it’s the wordiness that is drawing the attention, actually it’s about the huge cast characters, or the episodic style because after all the Dickens novels are serialized, but what about…

I don’t think we’ll ever find an answer to this mystery and it may be better to judge the book by its own standards. Matthew Sherill in The Paris Review best puts it: “The best way to liberate the Dickensian—and the truest way to see it in other works—is to disavow the word entirely.”

On the other side of the globe, Japanese literature is gaining attention from Western readers thanks to the popularity of Murakami Haruki. People want more Murakami. But he can’t write all the time, so what about the other writers?

In his essay about the business of Japanese translations, “The Murakami Effect”, Stephen Snyder calls this phenomenon “the ‘Are there any more like you at home?’ factor, in reference to the almost constant questioning by agents and editors about the next Murakami and my own experience in translating half a dozen writers, such as Natsuo Kirino and Yōko Ogawa, who have been identified, often explicitly on jacket copy, as Murakami-like in one way or another—and often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” No one but Murakami can write Norwegian Wood or Kafka in the Shore; however, the search goes on and it affects translation prospects for other kinds of works.

Zoleiean, Proustian, Dickensian, Murakami-like — all of these are fancier than Dark Souls, but they serve the same purpose. They are comparisons that mean little, but they generate a hype and sense of prestige in the readers. Unlike the Dark Souls comparisons, they are “legitimized” because no one thinks that’s wrong to compare. There’s no account on Twitter called @xmeetsmurakami. This is considered fair game.

And that’s why video game journalists think it’s confusing when they try to do the same thing with Dark Souls. Writers don’t feel remorse for comparing Mario puzzles to Dark Souls at all.

Every time a Japanese video game creator is praised for doing something interesting or off the wall, they are compared to Kojima Hideo. Anime directors who portray a beauty in everyday life are awarded with recognition that they are mimicking Miyazaki Hayao. Anything remotely dark in Japan will be compared to Ghost in the Shell or AKIRA.

These names are what have pleased the Western sensibilities the most, so any work from Japan, Portugal, or even contemporary works from American diasporas has to reach that arbitrary benchmark. If they don’t fulfill that criteria of being Dark Souls-like or whatever-like, the work gets ignored.

We can notice a pattern like that possibly emerging in the world of anime films. While film critics are forever entranced by Ghibli films and Ghost in the Shell, works like Your Name and the upcoming Yuri on Ice film have caused substantial interest from American fans who have not watched anime in years. It is possible that they become the new standards in the eyes of the anime fandom.

Granted, this may not be a thing because distribution of anime films is extremely flawed in the United States; however, the impact of the diversity of films — A Silent Voice and In This Corner of the World come to mind — has affected fans around the world. As the anime industry begins to set their eyes on the silver screen, the new benchmarks are being made. Maybe in the future, anime films won’t be compared to My Neighbor Totoro but Your Name. Films that can’t live up to Your Name‘s specific brand of romance will get the non-Dark Souls-like treatment. They don’t exist.

I honestly doubt we’ll ever get beyond this aspect of criticism. People want to find works that are similar to what they love. All we can do is move the goalposts.

So it feels like the “comparison game” is a strange game where the only winning move is to not play. But it is impossible to forfeit and play chess when we compare works all the time. We subconsciously think works are “Shakespearean” the minute a character enters a soliloquy about revenge. We compare structures of stories to five acts as if they are plays by the Bard. That’s the name of the game.

No matter what new rules you may put in the game, you’re still playing the comparison game.

The lack of passion — or should I say, the lack of soul — in the comparison can be attributed to so many factors anybody can be right if they just blurt out a word. It’s the critics’ fault for being so detached. It’s the industry’s fault for promoting this behavior. It’s the websites’ fault for hiring bad writers with little to no money and time. It’s the fans’ fault for getting so hyped for Dark Souls or any of the “big names” out there. Maybe whose fault is it doesn’t matter anymore since we’re all contributing to this mess.

Metaphors and similes, the tools of comparisons, work because it creates a quick image in people’s mind without the need to use much words. Dark Souls comparisons do not always work because people often focus on one aspect — usually the atmosphere, the difficulty, or the resurrection — and thus confuse everyone. Dark Souls is not one thing; it is many things packaged into one BluRay disk. Likewise, evoking Proust or Dickens because they feel somewhat similar makes it hard to follow what you exactly mean. Is it Dickensian because Tartt references Dickens’ archetypes? Is it Proustian because Quieros criticizes high society? It is this lack of precision the comparisons have which frustrates everyone. And it is far worse when they have become the sole criterion for aesthetic standards; only works deemed Miyazaki-ish should be talked about, everything else is garbage.

All of this can be avoided if the comparisons have substance. People can learn to be more exacting with adjectives and talk about it in contexts that make sense. Playing the comparison game is like playing Dark Souls itself, a game that challenges you to be better and pick up the skills and strategies needed to fight bosses and overcome obstacles. The people who have fallen to the chasms of bad comparisons don’t seem to understand the obvious as hell game design. You are supposed to hone, not worsen, your skills.

Comparisons can be something more than buzzwords and clickbait. It can find connections you don’t expect at all. That’s why we compare works to others and see what new ideas and themes can form.

Learning when a comparison doesn’t mean anything anymore requires a total mindset change. A long time ago, romance stories are compared to Romeo and Juliet. Today, we have so many new romance films as new benchmarks because there’s more romance than just Shakespeare. In the near future, I hope we will learn there are more games than Dark Souls.

Because those games are everywhere waiting to be played and talked about.

Some acknowledgments need to be given: This post has been inspired by a conversation I had with kViN (@Yuyucow) of Sakugabooru about the state of anime films. @ultimatemegax has supplied some more information for me as well.

If you like reading this post and others, consider supporting my Patreon which helps put down research costs for content I will like to write about.

7 thoughts on “Playing the Comparison Game: The Dark Souls of Criticism

  1. punishedhag July 31, 2017 / 10:44 am

    The phenomenon reminds me of TVTropes, where all sorts of fiction is broken down into parts that can be construed as being the same type of parts in other fiction. Recognizing common elements is one thing, but the process that site goes through feels too holistic and I see stories as being very organic, so the mechanized process feels cold and artificial like a dismantled watch on a steel tray.

    I guess the difference with comparing to a singular thing is that you’re not cutting up Crash Bandicoot to find the Dark Souls, just slapping a label on it, so it’s less…no, I dunno if it’s less or more damaging, because it’s still taking a unique thing and shoving it into a box instead of letting it have its own box, I guess.

    I like explaining why I like individual things on their own merits, really. Feels more personal!

    • Kastel July 31, 2017 / 1:24 pm

      I’ve always felt TVTropes’s method was to compartmentalize traits and characteristics to specific ideas — hammering them into tropes, if you will. The opposite of holism. It’s more like trying to see everything as Dark Souls instead of considering the historical ideas that put the works together.

      Which tends to be the problem. The Dark Souls comparisons are often thin without acknowledging the existence of design ideas from the past. Something like NieR: Automata takes more inspiration Ikaruga and CAVE, but not much has been reported on it. Finding the right comparisons can make the work stronger in criticism.

      Individual things on its own merits are fine. But I don’t believe comparing anything is bad. If there is a work that is indeed Souls-like, go ahead. It is just thin and superficial to compare small elements like HARD PUZZLES to Dark Souls because it is well-known for difficulty.

      • punishedhag July 31, 2017 / 2:47 pm

        Oh yeah, it’s totally impossible to not compare stuff, and ignoring easy comparisons to facilitate getting across ideas to someone is silly. It’s just when I want to express personal enjoyment I’ll never say something like “this made me cry because it’s like X”, I’d say “this made me cry because the characters touched me in surprising way” or something.

  2. Alexskc August 1, 2017 / 6:08 am

    The bit I’m most interested in here is “People like things similar to what they like.”
    I 100% get that, it’s a part of human nature. But there’s still plenty of variation within human nature. Some people are more or less novelty seeking than others. Maybe it would be better for us to seek things not like Dark Souls, but things unlike Dark Souls, or anything else for that matter.

    It’s a risk/reward kind of thing. You can seek out things you know you’ll like, though they might be somewhat boring and predictable, or you can look for something new and unfamiliar with the reward of experiencing new thoughts, emotions and perspectives that are more interesting than the same old, but run the risk of wasting time on something you hate.

    Of course, elitism and accessibility also play into this. And I dunno to what extent we can choose how novelty seeking we are, and to what extent it matters.

    • Kastel August 1, 2017 / 9:14 pm

      For better or worse, popular works like Dark Souls are benchmarks for many fans. I will find myself using somewhat popular works, Your Name for example, as benchmarks for future works in the same medium or genre. In my head, if an anime film doesn’t feel as entertaining as that film, I’m rating it lower than Your Name.

      I am recently bummed out and reading manga and American comics for new experiences. I’m one of those weirdos who chase for novelty in storytelling and art to see if there are new thoughts, emotions, and perspectives. A ton of risk, as you can imagine, and I’m not exactly sure if it’s rewarding all the time. But I think I’m one of those people who just want new experiences and not always the same, simple thing.

      At some point, I’d like to write about my eccentric “taste” for media. I’m pretty much looking at “inaccessible”, “elite” works and the most mainstream works I can think of that I have avoided for a while. I’m looking for things that don’t always appeal to my taste, so I can’t always refer to my benchmarks. It’s more interesting that way to jump into something new and finding yourself in the familiar yet different world of storytelling. I don’t always do it for the novelty; I just like knowing some more subjects besides Japanese media to talk to people and write about.

      I feel that reward isn’t just the satisfaction of reading or watching something good but learning about the different things in media or whatever. There’s much more to media than the content itself. You can talk to people who you rarely talk to about stuff and learn more about your own taste and their views on the media. The risk may be the reward itself. That philosophy is how it informs my decisions to pick up something I may not be encouraged to pick up according to Amazon algorithms.

      That may be why my blog goes everywhere in my head. It’s always been a “risk is the reward” blog without the desire to plant its feet onto something like a niche. I’ve been considering writing about random shit like The Twilight Zone, Superman: Secret Identity, more Singaporean literature, and all that stuff. It’s more interesting to write about the risk than the reward. I hope my readers agree with me on that since that’s just how the blog functions.

      • Alexskc August 2, 2017 / 12:24 am

        “What if the real reward was the risks we took along the way?”

        I dunno if I can totally agree with that. I mean, I feel like it’s better and more fulfilling to engage with interesting, unique works, and I too like knowing what’s popular and using it as a reference point. But that just could be me rationalizing my own pre-existing novelty seeking tendencies. (or at least, what I perceive to be my own tendencies)

        My girlfriend’s mom for example, said that I don’t seem to like trying new things, which I found incredibly offensive. But why did I find it offensive? Was it simply because it contradicted my idea of myself? Or was it because I thought you need to be novelty seeking to be a “good, interesting person?” Or, worst of all, I thought of myself as “good and interesting” by definition, and by extension had to be novelty seeking?

        And I can give all those reasons about learning how things work, and better understanding your own values, and thinking about things you otherwise wouldn’t. But that could just be working back from a conclusion I want to arrive to.

        Cause when speaking about these things, we don’t really have any metric for the correctness of our ramblings. If someone says “I stay in my comfort zone and it’s fine,” there’s not really any way to debate that. I can’t say “My feelings are realer than yours” and ~instert solipsistic nonsense~

        So it becomes this weird game of guessing what part of people is personality, what’s acting, and what’s choice, and you have to guess which acting and choices are applicable to you. And maybe being novelty seeking is personality, or choice, or a combination of both. But we dunno how much of a difference it makes unless someone decides to go from more conservative choices to more diverse, or vice-versa.

        And I guess most people go through that to some extent? Young children tend to love repetition, young adults tend to be more novelty seeking, Ave we tend to get set in our ways as we get older, but… Every step of the way we feel like we’re right to be the way we are! So even if we change, we lack the perspective to say which is “better.”

        So I guess any discussions like this are just masturbation? Idk, I don’t think these things through before I start writing.

      • Kastel August 2, 2017 / 4:26 am

        I always find that comfort zones in general are good to have, but I’m the type of person who just likes to try stuff. It’s not for everyone to try going away their comfort zone. I know people who as they grow older narrow their taste and become more critical. They know what they want and they won’t budge from it. Meanwhile, I’m clearly going away from my preconceptions and try for something else.

        I’ve never cared about what other people think. I usually like finding people who are fans of the mediums they are in without discrimination. What they think of my taste is going to be impossible. Maybe they think I’m acting when I say I like literature because that’s pretentious. Maybe they think I’m honest because I still like a good laugh from Captain Underpants. I don’t tend to care how people see how novelty-chasing or conservative I am. I just like a lot of stuff.

        I wouldn’t sweat over what people think if you like Dark Souls mechanics and needing that to appear in every other game. That’s fine and it’s part of your taste. The post acknowledges that and it explains why we do this comparison in the first place. But we can’t just compare everything to it even if we are seeking for that comfort zone over and over again. It just doesn’t work for criticism.

        But taste and preference? The comparison game has little to do with that. As you said, it’s a personality guessing game. But personally I don’t think that matters. Taste arguments bore me and the more interesting people I have met over the years are folks who are the opposite of me and yet we find similarities anyway. It’s never a question of which is better in the first place; it’s just a discussion. A discourse, if you will.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.